There’s an App for That—But Does it Work?

Can we agree that there is an app for pretty much everything under the sun now? I thought so. And that includes plenty of apps related to health (hundreds of thousands) and lots incorporate food intake. And of course, some of these are specifically designed to help people with weight loss. Do these apps work? What are the advantages of these types of apps?

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They’ve come a long way, baby.

The earliest nutrition and weight-loss apps were basically glorified calorie trackers or macronutrient trackers that spit out pretty pie charts and graphs and that was about it. Then came the texting apps, which allowed some interaction and showed some successes, but in general failed to keep users engaged for very long. These days, behavior-based strategies facilitated by smartphone apps are available for all manner of health-related issues including smoking cessation, medication management, alcohol addiction, and increasing physical activity. And most likely you’ve heard about these types of apps (such as Noom) being used by those seeking to drop pounds.

What does “behavior-based” really mean?

The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to reinforce desirable behaviors and reduce or eliminate unwanted or unhealthy behaviors. It is used with a variety of issues including substance abuse, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and phobias, among others. Its use to help support a healthy lifestyle isn’t exactly new, and it’s a recognized part of modern treatment plans to address binge-eating and other eating problems. However, the melding of cognitive-behavioral therapy and smartphone health apps is increasingly common. The behavior-based apps are much more sophisticated than the early health apps, and provide plenty of personalization as well as real-time adaptation and interaction. Personal “coaches,” quick feedback, and tailored content and support are what the public wants now. In short, the apps “bring behavioral interventions into life real life situations where people make decisions about their health.” App developers are figuring out ways to deliver that—and quickly.

Do behavior-based health apps/weight loss apps work?

Evaluating the efficacy of health apps has been attempted in the past with limited success. Many of the studies only included a few apps, and the apps don’t use the same behavior-change methods, making it hard to compare them. Also, there are no standards for evaluating the apps and the technology changes quickly, so in general, rigorous research on their efficacy is lacking. However, the evaluations that are available indicate modest efficacy of behavior-based health apps. It’s been shown that small diet and physical activity changes can be enough to prevent weight gain, and that achieving small lifestyle changes can prompt bigger or more substantive changes. This is part of the basis for behavior-based apps, and it’s a good starting point.

If you’re looking to make substantial changes to your health, it helps to remember that no one technique is likely to do it all. The most effective changes come from a combination effort. In the case of weight loss, that would be some combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, physical activity, and nutritional consultation with a registered dietitian.